Modern politics—whether left or right—has a vexed relationship with the migrant … and the citizen.
It seems odd that frustration with global migration and global frustration with mass democracy could signify opposite sides of the same coin. Yet, these two antipathies find their condition of possibility under the banner of modern political philosophy, which no longer inspires new ideas for political action.
On one side, modernity’s vexed relationship with the migrant requires a dogged belief that all people are categorically the same. The assumption of sameness underpins traditional politics across the spectrum and positions one’s politics toward the migrant according to the category invoked: nationalism (all citizens are the same; all migrants different from us); socialists (all workers are the same; all migrants are exploited like us); and liberals (all humans are the same; we must save the migrants). The issue is not whether the ideology holds a hostile or sympathetic stance toward the “migrant.” Rather, none of these ideologies holds a place where a migrant speaks for him/herself.
Like a historical wave receding back to the sea, one can readily sense the lost faith in the central tenet of post-Enlightenment politics.
On the other side, this silencing effect does not end with the migrant. Frustration with mass democracy, which spans the political spectrum, betrays the fact that peoples’ voices only get heard despite that system not because of it. Thus, like a historical wave receding back to the sea, one can readily sense the lost faith in the central tenet of post-Enlightenment politics that guided both left and right revolutions for two hundred years: that modern citizenship grants voice to the “average” person and so lifts us to the acme of political empowerment. Yet, people across the spectrum hardly feel empowered.
Why? Because, in defiance of daily experience, modern politics is premised upon the myth of same-ness rather than an obvious empirical fact: no two people can possibly be the same for the simple reason that no two people have lived the same life. Rather than unite people, over time the myth of same-ness actually leads to their estrangement from each other. If no community recognizes our particularity as persons, then mass society (democratic or otherwise) triggers a withdrawal of citizens into their own inner lives. That particularity is then manifested privately through home décor, musical interests, and hobbies rather than publicly where it would appear as part of the plurality of viewpoints that would constitute political space with others. Hence, privacy is sacred in today’s liberal West while the word “public” has lost its meaning.
The danger of not smartly addressing this systemic estrangement is legion. Strong-arm leaders in Russia and China easily argue that democracy neither provides domestic security nor delivers the goods; they reduce the metric by which to judge a society from justice itself to mere efficiency and tranquility. In the liberal West, neo-right leaders, such as Donald Trump, Norbert Hofer, and Geert Wilders among many others, address frustrations with mass democracy not by searching for new ways to include the nation’s actually existing plurality of people—rather, they deny that plurality even more vigorously.
This move leads to a profoundly anti-democratic position attained through a ruthlessly logical path: If all people are the same, then reason dictates that an eloquent great leader do the talking for them. (It is another discussion as to why that talking features both xenophobia and obnoxiousness). The strange self-censorship and deference to a leader requires a migrant-other to reinforce the belief in their same-ness. It follows that differences within the nation are so insignificant that multi-party government is a waste of time. If the neo-right’s power would be further entrenched, then judges and courts will come to signify not fairness toward the accused, but rather weakness and equivocation in the face of moral certainty. If we are all the same, then we can simply deduce what is right, like a proof in a high-school geometry class. What is there to debate? Everything stands to (universal) reason not (particular) perspective.
If migrants stand defiantly against the xenophobic nationalist, then they must wrestle with mixed emotions about liberal charity.
Liberals end up in a different contortion because their same-ness is extended to all people on earth—aka humanity—rather than one nation among the global family of nations. Hence, while they are more willing to save migrants from peril (because “they” are one of “us”), they still cannot look a migrant in the eye as a political equal. If so, then they would relinquish the power position from which they control the migrant through selected acts of kindness. Liberal compassion, in the end, functions to distinguish liberals from nationalists more so than to equalize political power with people who are “different.” This generates a familiar angst in liberals who struggle to believe that helping someone is enough to politically equalize fellow humans. Liberals hold a power that makes them uncomfortable, or so it would seem.
If migrants stand defiantly against the xenophobic nationalist, then they must wrestle with mixed emotions about liberal charity: gratitude for being saved, and resentment for having their existence as actual people denied in the process. If liberals are sufficiently attuned, then they learn from the migrant’s skepticism that nothing is worse, except death itself, than being kept alive and still denied a constituent presence in the world.
A distant example helps us think through the dilemma—that it draws from the tale of a migrant traversing the Mediterranean Sea is symbolically fitting given recent events in that part of the world: Homer’s Odyssey conveys (among many other things) how a world is constituted between different people who would otherwise remain perfect strangers. After twenty years lost at sea, spent careening from one life-threatening event to another, the migrant king Odysseus arrives naked, destitute, and anonymous on the island of Skhería, where the ruling family accommodates him, though a stranger. According to the custom of hosting travelers, King Alkínoös organizes a banquet for him upon his departure without having yet learned his true identity. When during the banquet, a minstrel sings the tale of the Trojan Horse—a signature exploit that Odysseus had masterminded—Odysseus weeps, implying his true identity to Alkínoös and revealing that his alienation had become too sharp to bear. King Alkínoös then calls upon Odysseus to declare himself openly on the grounds that as one man must “treat a decent suppliant as a brother” so the other must “tell…the name [he] bore in that far off country.” (The second half of that equation distinguishes Alkínoös from a modern liberal).
In this pivotal scene, the migrant is restored through the fullness of ceremony. It is no empty feel-good gesture. Rather, Alkínoös creates a space where Odysseus (the migrant-body) could re-connect himself to Odysseus (the particular man) known from the tales circulating throughout the Greek world. He, therefore, restores Odysseus’s place in that world, and so resurrects him from the living dead to the living. The custom of hospitality—so central to the Odyssey—ensured that the stranger lose his strangeness in the company of others. It guaranteed that no one endured the worst fate possible—and arguably the eventual outcome of post-Enlightenment politics—that of flitting through life as a ghost in the eyes of all others.
How does the relationship between Alkínoös and Odysseus speak to the philosophy behind contemporary frustrations with migration and democracy? It would be unthinkable for either Alkínoös or Odysseus to proclaim their same-ness with all other people, but not because they were both king. Rather, the ancient world had no notion of same-ness understood as the "average" person. Instead, to become fully human in the ancient world, one needed access to a public space where one could appear in word or deed as a distinct person. Freedom to appear and freedom from migrant-hood were opposite sides of the same coin.
That entire categories of people, like women and slaves, were excluded from public space in ancient Greece does not undermine this point. Instead, the Greek comparison forces us to ask how we moderns have managed to exclude not just certain categories of people, migrants for example, but rather everyone from such a public space. The resulting mass estrangement generates "migrants" out of everyone, leaving us untethered, disconnected, and suspicious of whatever and whomever we encounter. That sad result can only come about with the assumption of same-ness that underpins the full suite of modern political ideologies. That assumption denies the empirical fact that each person is, and can only be, a particular entity.
Thus, while the neo-right’s stance toward the migrant becomes self-defeating (“thanks to the ‘migrant’, my same-ness is confirmed and my leader speaks for me”), the liberals’ stance of granting citizenship to migrants misses the key point, despite its importance otherwise. The fundamental problem we face is not that we are not all citizens—members of some homogenized group. Instead, the problem is that we are systemically atomized: we are all migrants.
Mexican immigrants to the U.S. face a stigma that stretches back to ancient civilization.